The Last Billboard, 2010-ongoing. 36-ft.-long billboard in Pittsburgh displaying rotating artists’ projects, this one by Packard Jennings.

Context as Material: A Conversation with Jon Rubin

Socially engaged art considers site, history, and the public as equals, the artist’s vision working in concert with the audience’s reality. Jon Rubin has been a defining force in this arena, creating and blurring boundaries within a very young practice that carries huge implications. Taking on multiple platforms for public engagement, his projects, including Conflict Kitchen, The Lovasik Estate Sale, and The Speech of the Swans, mine various global communities through an exploration of current socio-political issues. Generally, contextual (social) practice is hyper-complicated and operates on multiple levels of grassroots organizing. Rubin’s work, in particular, is thoughtfully catalyzing. His projects have raised important questions and bridged diverging communities by cultivating relationships between people, places, cultures, and contexts. If you are at all interested in artistic expression that questions authority and brings people together, I strongly recommend reading what Rubin has to say and then getting involved. 

Joshua Reiman: Is context a material, and if so, why?

Jon Rubin: For me, it certainly is. Traditionally, we think of context as something that you place art within, as opposed to something that you construct art from, and in that definition, context is still mostly driven by the art market’s ever-repeating nesting boxes of studios, galleries, and museums. Those are all good and great—and they present one type of context for art, albeit a very hermetic one—but, for me, the various social realms that we inhabit in our daily lives are so much more complicated and fascinating as artistic material. All of my work is produced as part of a contingent relationship between the situations I find or place myself within, the scenarios I produce for those situations, and the people I’m working with.

JR: Can you talk about changing cultural contexts through objects or identities within your work? I am interested in The Lovasik Estate Sale and Conflict Kitchen and how they cross cultural perspectives through the displacement of identities. 

JR: I was invited by curator Chelsea Haines to represent the city of Pittsburgh at the last Shanghai Biennial, which is in itself a strange contextual juxtaposition. I purchased the entire estate sale of a working-class Pittsburgh family, shipped it to Shanghai, and then restaged and held the actual sale during the run of the exhibition. What’s important to note is that over half of the objects in the estate were originally manufactured in China for American consumers. Each day, when visitors in Shanghai purchased possessions from the estate and took them home, they were essentially repatriating these objects into a market for which they were never intended. 

The Lovasik Estate Sale, 2012. View of participatory project created for the 9th Shanghai Biennial.

I wanted to look at how we culturally and economically fabricate what is foreign by colliding the consumer residue of an American family with the new psychology of state capitalism in China. At its core, The Lovasik Estate Sale was a portrait of a family and, to a greater extent, of the socio-economics of death in the United States. We create a second consumer body through a lifetime of slow accumulation, and then suddenly we die and the body sits there, untethered from its owner. How did it all become so meaningless? What’s to be done with it? 

Here in the U.S., we turn it into a sale—a weird moment when objects with histories and sentiments become generic again, moving back into the world to gain new meanings with new owners. It lays bare the morbid workings of our capitalist eco­system. Anyway, my question was how would those consumer and family narratives get reshuffled if the whole thing got relocated to China? 

In Shanghai, people have more experience shopping than museum-going, so even though they were seeing many of these things, which were made in their country, for the first time, they had no trouble switching roles into consumers, which led to a frenzied type of environment for the whole project. There was some cognitive dissonance as people recognized that all of these possessions belonged to one Pittsburgh family, but instead of it being creepy and turning them off, it accelerated their desire for ownership. In a place like Shanghai, where people are just now throwing away broken objects and buying newer versions, these old and foreign possessions took on a kind of fetish value.

As for Conflict Kitchen, which has been operating seven days a week for the past five years, the first contextual material was our city itself. The project, which I co-direct with Dawn Weleski, is located in a civic plaza in Pittsburgh and serves food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. In addition to serving hundreds of people each day, we work with people living in each country we focus on, as well as local expats, to produce everything from publications and performances to film festivals and school curriculum. I often describe it as a “front-door intervention.” Meaning, we insert politically challenging counter-narratives into the stream of public life, not through some backdoor guerrilla strategy, but through the populist mechanisms of a commercial business. We’ve created a space on the street that functions on a very basic, daily level in people’s lives, and the type of relationships and discourse we’ve been able to catalyze because of that have been remarkable. Essentially, we’ve used food as a device to get our customers to engage in political and cultural discussions that are uncomfortable for most Americans. We’ve also presented the first Iranian, Venezuelan, Palestinian, Afghan, and North Korean restaurants in our city. 

The project operates as a kind of open public studio. We try things out, we observe, ask questions, shift, try something else, revisit. After five years, the public expects that we are always going to be making changes. Being open every single day, moving through so many different cultural iterations, we’ve accrued a density and complexity within the city. It’s like an additive sculpture, except the materials are made out of relationships that have woven us into the fabric of Pittsburgh’s life. And in that way, I think we’ve built enough cultural, as well as economic, capital to allow us a level of autonomy you rarely get to have in an art project. 

Conflict Kitchen, 2010-ongoing. View of participatory restaurant/public studio project in Pittsburgh.

JR: You also make objects. Can you tell me how The Time and The Temperature operates? 

JR: It’s a fairly neutral object, placed into a charged political dynamic. I was invited to create a temporary public work for the bicentennial of Columbus, Ohio. The project happened during the last presidential election, when Ohio was a major swing state, and I sited the piece just down the street from the state capitol building. So, the political zeitgeist was a significant material in this work, although I think it could work today in cities across the U.S.

I manufactured a time-and-temperature sign, like the ones outside banks, churches, and schools that are so much a part of the American vernacular. I love how they give you a reading of the exact spot you are looking at and living in—in essence, a reflection of the empirical here and now. But this sign told the live time and temperature in Tehran. I wanted to upset the expected localized reading of a sign like this and provoke people into another reality that exists simultaneously. The sign still retained its truth, just not for Columbus. I guess my question was whether I could get a viewer to hover between two places, two cultural and political circumstances, both distant and intertwined. It was somewhere between banal and provo­cative depending on a viewer’s ideological inclinations. Some people in the nearby office buildings were hugely upset by it. The sign was really just a catalyst. While it was up, we worked with the local Iranian community, as well as religious and politi­- cal leaders, to hold open forums and events that sought to challenge the simplified U.S. policy narratives that define most people’s viewpoints on Iran.

JR: Social practice is all the rage right now in contemporary art circles. What are your thoughts about it, and what are the consequences of working this way for artists?

JR: Listen, it’s undeniable that more artists want to be part of dialogues that aren’t just circumscribed by the history of art or its markets. They want to work in multiple contexts, engage with multiple audiences, and they want to have larger social and cultural relevance. To me, all of that’s a good thing, whether you call it social practice or something else. 

Thinking About Flying, 2012. View of participatory project with homing pigeons created in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

As for the consequences for artists who are working this way, the largest one is that they can’t always rely on the art market to support them or their work. If you want to move in multiple worlds, you have to find multiple sources of support. The positive byproduct of this is that you now see a lot of artists creating their own col­lectives, residencies, and nonprofits and using alternative business models for their projects. This also means that more artists are able to base their lives and practices outside of traditional art centers, both nationally and globally. The question is whether all of these unruly and developing, socially engaged art practices are going to just end up as part of some tidy movement that’s eventually put to bed in a set of books and catalogues, or whether they mark the start of an actual movement in which art and artists truly play more significant roles in questioning and structuring society.

JR: OK, but then what about the consequences of working in a community and basing that interaction in an artwork? What advice can you give artists when working in this manner?

JR: There are so many things out of your control when you work with the public, so I think it’s important to put things out there and see how people respond, how stories start to appear and get disseminated outside of your control, and then to respond in kind. I usually recognize something is working as it appears in front of me, often accidentally. It’s a kind of call-and-response method of production. Instead of being hidden in a studio, all this process is apparent to the public, and it’s happening in real time. I still think what artists can uniquely do in social spheres is what they do well in the studio, and that is, respond to ideas and situations in really idiosyncratic, provocative, and non-rational ways. To me, the most interesting socially engaged work is a constant back and forth between the desires of the artist and the desires of the public, and in this way, the work simultaneously shapes and is shaped by its context. For me, the best way to do this is to develop projects that function as platforms or apparatus for participation within public life or take on quasi-institutional identities that allow for the work to exist within multiple social systems. 

JR: How did Thinking About Flying (MCA Denver) operate as a platform with the public?

JR: I was specifically trying to push the museum and its visitors to be very conscious of their roles as participants who held specific responsibilities in constructing the work. The museum was provided with a group of young homing pigeons that were cared for by its staff while also being taken home daily by visitors, who lived with them for a few days before releasing them to fly back to the museum. A kind of dance of stewardship between the viewer and the institution developed, with more than a thousand people taking home birds over the course of a year. The project nicely inverted the usual roles for museums and viewers, as domestic spaces performed the functions of temporary exhibition sites and the institutional space was cast as a domicile and caretaker, having to feed and clean up after the pigeons on a daily basis in a live act of conservation. Another important factor was that each visitor who took home and released a bird was by default participating in its training, as every flight back to the museum expanded the birds’ strength and the circumference of their navigable field. In this way, the work functioned again like an additive sculpture, expanding with each act of participation. Releasing the pigeons took an interesting act of faith. Once they’re out of your view, you’re left to imagine their flight back to the museum. They were housed in an old backyard pigeon loft that I modified into a misfit mirror of the museum’s Modernist architecture. That became the physical metaphor for the whole project: How do you map a space that hovers between a home and an institution? 

Perhaps the most important element was that these pigeons are amazing living creatures. A true act of trust needed to exist between the museum and the visitor—the usual passive relationship just wouldn’t do—and because of that, something real and beautiful was at stake. The MCA Denver was absolutely amazing to work with. Everyone there was deeply involved in what turned out to be a complicated process of daily tasks and responsibilities.

The Speech of the Swans, 2011. View of participatory project created for the 8th Mercosul Biennial, Porto Alegre, Brazil.

JR: I see most of your works as signs, literal promotions of ideas to the public. 

JR: Many of the projects use methods of engagement and dissemination that carry with them a certain set of pre-existing expectations from the public. Working through the vernacular structure of a billboard, a restaurant, or a sidewalk protest—each of these forms comes with its own vocabulary or way of being used or seen in the world. I have a hard time seeing things as discrete. So, I don’t know if I see them so much as signs, as much as systems—systems that intersect with other systems.

For instance, The Waffle Shop took the form of a neighborhood restaurant that produced and broadcast a pretty bizarre live-streaming talk show with its customers every hour it was open. It was a strange, yet synchronous coupling of a cable access TV station with a dinner theater with a late night greasy spoon, and the public, although often confused when they first walked in the door, had no trouble finding their place within one of those identities. We were open for four years, and on each given night, the experience would be entirely different depending on who came in. There were hundreds of people, all kinds of people, who took on many different roles, including performers, audience members, and customer/funders. 

The Speech of the Swans, which Dawn Weleski and I created in Porto Alegre, Brazil, as part of the Mercosul Biennial, also inserted one type of system into another. We were interested in placing a kind of feedback loop into the public realm that would seduce locals into expressing their political fears and desires. So, for five weeks, at a lake in Porto Alegre’s central park, actors portraying then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama took the public on romantic rides in swan-shaped boats. As they traveled, the actors asked the question that all lovers eventually ask, “What do you really think of me?” The responses were recorded, and each afternoon, the presidents turned the exact words that were said to them into public speeches. Because the local public already perceived Chavez and Obama as representing the different political ideologies that they themselves were struggling with, they had no trouble unloading their opinions on them. 

JR: How does The Last Billboard operate?

JR: I see The Last Billboard as a very lo-fi, yet high-profile exhibition venue that allows me to bring the work of different artists into the city. I really love how old fashioned and clunky it is. Each message stays up for a month, and it takes hours to manually change it by hand. In relation to the hundreds of e-mails, texts, and tweets that run past our field of view each day, this billboard is wonderfully slow and physical. It is also intentionally left unbranded—there’s no phone number or Web site listed on or near it. To be honest, most people have no idea what it is. Each text presents itself kind of enigmatically to the public, isolated not only from advertising, but also from art. This helps open it up to many more readings, as opposed to most other text in the public sphere, which labels, brands, or sells something in obvious and didactic ways. 

JR: A lot of these works can’t function without the community they are in. You set up an artistic equation that relies on its context. Your work seems to bring people together in ways that are unexpected and educational. 

JR: Yeah, ultimately each project is defined by the people who decide to participate in it and how we establish some shared story about the work together. 

Joshua Reiman is an artist living in Portland, ME, where he is also an assistant professor in the studio art + sculpture MFA program at the Maine College of Art.

Watch these videos on Jon Rubin and his work

The Last Billboard from The Pittsburgh Foundation on Vimeo.
Jon Rubin at the 2014 Carol R. Brown Awards on Youtube.
Jon Rubin Presenting “The Sitcom” at the 2015 Creative Capital Retreat on Youtube.

For more information on Jon Rubin, click here.